Jazz Improvisation, Agency and Freedom: Between the Human and Inhuman Lies the Assemblage

This is the title for a panel session to be given at New Frontiers, the 11th Annual Joint Conference of The Society for European Philosophy and the Forum for European Philosophy at the University of Dundee between 3 and 5 September 2015


Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg—New Centre for Research and Practice

Dr. David Roden—The Open University

Tom Hewitt—The Open University

These three papers seek to frame a discussion of the complex relationship between creativity and agency in the performance of improvised music.  Here we expand the definition of improvisation to refer to avant-garde noise experimentalists as well as jazz instrumentalists from the African-American classical tradition.  The act of creation no longer appears to emerge from the mystical depths of the human subject isolate, but finds itself embedded in relationships which require recourse to theories of hybrid agency:  between the embodied subject and the musical instrument; between the instrumentalist and a digital interface; between embodied instrumentalists networked in aural proximity or, at a distance through digital interfaces.  Even the medium of notatable musical expression, shared by the range of improvisers who are proprioceptively altered by the distinct agency of their instruments, requires a more nuanced view:  current neuroscience experiments have found that some of the neuronal regions that processes harmony, melody and rhythm are shared by those in the cognition of language, yet, significant differences between linguistic and musical cognition exist.  Furthermore, even avant-garde or “free” jazz seems initially to have boundaries guided by rules laid down by those features of the musical system that may behave like a  “language game.”

In Tom Hewitt’s paper “Degrees of Freedom: Agency In Improvised Music—Searching For Boundaries in Entangled Network Space,” he inquires into the paradoxical relationship between freedom and rules, with respect to the cyborg instrumentalist as “performer-clarinet-software-hardware assemblage,” argues that the boundaries “between the ergon (work) and prosopon (person) are fuzzy and indeterminate” and asks “If we cannot with certainty, say where these boundaries are, how can we, with certainty, describe where the agency lies in improvised (or any) musical production?”  He postulates an “Entangled Network Space” to describe the processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialisation  of these entangled assemblages.

In David Roden’s paper, “Improvisation, Time and the Posthuman,” he uses composer Ray Brassier’s essay “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (2013) in order to move from a voluntarist model of expressive freedom initially to confront the rule-forming behavior akin to “language games” that seems to govern processes of both conventional and avant-garde improvisation.  Roden argues that a “language games” approach remains inadequate to describe the improvised event, stating that “musical rules….do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice.”  He then argues for a reexamination of the model of “remorseless temporality” that Brassier argues governs the moment of improvisation, in order to develop “an ethics or politics fit to explore Roden’s earlier concept of “possibility spaces” from his book Posthuman Life (2014).

In Martin E. Rosenberg’s paper on more conventional jazz performance, “Jazz Ensembles and Neuronal Ensembles,” he begins with his distinction between preparing for improvisation (“Projective Apprehension”) and the performance of improvisation (‘Proprio-Sentience”), in order to examine the embodied cognitive processes that complicate our understanding of agency even in the context of “free jazz.”  Rosenberg reviews the recent neuro-scientific research on the emergence of neuronal ensembles feeding back in real time in the brain of an individual embodied jazz performer.  He then reviews the mechanisms by which improvisation “in-the-moment” can take place despite the constraints of executive function on the immediacy of sensory reception, in order to confront the empirical implications of saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ exhortation: “Don’t play the music man; let the music play you.”  Rosenberg then describes the neurological role of the hardwire link from the cochlea to the motor regions that enables the feedback loop from the ensemble back to the individual performer to argue that, in the optimum conditions of performance, the soundscape of the jazz ensemble shapes the trajectory of an individual performer’s improvisation.  Thus, the emergent neuronal ensemble behavior within an individual during performance is reflected at scale by the behavior of the jazz ensemble, which takes on a life independent of the individual embodied performers.

Tom Hewitt

The Open University

Degrees of Freedom.  Agency in improvised music: searching for boundaries in Entangled Network Space 

“Jazz stands for freedom. It’s supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist – leave that to the classical musicians” – Dave Brubeck.  The implication is that the jazz improviser is a free agent in the production of the sonic object.  But is she?  Another musician, a clarinet improviser, says that he is very aware, during performance, of being part of a performer-clarinet-software-hardware assemblage.  This paper will question the notion of agency in respect of the improvising musician by looking at the synchronic and diachronic nature of the entanglements between the sub-assemblages which cause and constitute the musical phenomenon, by drawing on the connectionist philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari, Latour, De Landa and Hodder.  In his essay Paergon, Derrida discusses the problems associated with defining the boundaries or frames of artworks.  Borrowing from the spirit of Derrida’s coinage, I use the term paraprosopon to discuss where the boundaries of a person might lie.  I argue that, pace Kosko, such boundaries, between the ergon (work) and prosopon (person) are fuzzy and indeterminate.  If we cannot, with certainty, say where these boundaries are, how can we, with certainty, describe where the agency lies in improvised (or any) musical production?  And if the agentive subject ‘itself’ is difficult to pin down, how can we even begin to discuss the question of free-agency?  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this.  Humans have been cyborgs since they started using stone tools, and musical cyborgs since they first blew a bone flute.  We are, in Clark’s terminology, human-technology symbionts.  Our symbiotic association with technology becomes ever more pervasive and entangled with the passage of time.  I posit a metaphysical space, Entangled Network Space, where the de- and reterritorialization of these entangled assemblages plays out. 

Clark, A. 2003.  Natural-born cyborgs: why minds and technologies are made to merge.  New York: Oxford University Press
Clark. A. and D.J. Chalmers 2010 (in Menary, R. (ed.) 2010). “The Extended Mind” The Extended Mind. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. (27-42)
De Landa, M.  2006.  A new philosophy of society : assemblage theory and social complexity.  London: Continuum
Deleuze, G. and F Guattari, 2004.  A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum
Derrida, J.  1979.  “The Parergon” October. 9. 3-41
Hodder, I.  2012.  Entangled.  Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kosko, B.  1994. Fuzzy Thinking. London: Flamingo (Harper Collins)
Latour, B.  2005.  Reassembling the social : an introduction to actor-network-theory.
Oxford: Oxford University Press

Dr David Roden, The Open University

Improvisation, Time and the Posthuman

Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation. It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by action within the causal order.

According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour.

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954.) Sellars distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to reflect on concepts using articulate speech. Following Kant, Sellars regards concepts as a kind of rule for connecting judgements. Genuine agency involves capacity to follow or deviate from a rule. An agent must be able to hold herself and others accountable to a rule and this is only possible – for Brassier – if we make concepts explicit as moves within a language game (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).

Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. His text implies that the act of improvisation requires an encounter between rule-governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes but does not specify how such rules operate in music, what their nature is or how the encounter between rules and more rudimentary “pattern-governed” behaviour occurs.

In my paper I will argue that the reason he does not do this is that there are no such rules to be had. Musical rules in, the sense that the Sellarsian account requires, do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice. Instead, claims about what is permissible or implied in musical processes index highly-context sensitive perceptual and affective responses to musical events.

I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse of “rules” in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.

This adjustment is of more than aesthetic interest. Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act provides a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). I will conclude by using use this analogy to develop an ethics or politics fit to explore the radically inhuman “possibility spaces” for life discussed in my book Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).


Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.html (Accessed March 2015)

Brassier, Ray. 2013b. “Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology”. In Bana Bashour & Hans D. Muller (eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications. Routledge. 101-114.

Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and AVenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Sellars, Wilfrid .1954. “Some reflections on language games”. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.

Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, Global Center For Advanced Studies 

Jazz Ensembles And Neuronal Ensembles 

I wish to describe top-down cognitive processes that I call “Projective Apprehension” involved in preparation for the performance of improvised music, and bottom-up cognitive processes that I call “Proprio-Sentience” involved in actual improvised performance.  The aim is to inquire into the black box where individual, embodied cognition becomes distributed amongst the collective of embodied improvisers during performance.

By “projective apprehension,” I refer to the mapping and then internal spatial visualization of routes across the instrument.  To improvise in response to the musical resources of a song, as well as in response to the improvisation of the other musicians performing that song, a musician must anticipate conceptually, find visually, and master proprioceptively any number of routes that may be taken at any moment during the course of a performance.  Embedded in proprioceptive memory through long practice, those routes remain contingently available “beneath the fingers,” and become enacted immediately “in the moment” of performance.

“Proprio-sentience” refers to the extent by which the enaction of proprioceptive memories remain contingent and flexible enough so that, in the process of performing, the hands and fingers make micro-decisions by grasping one or another of a myriad of pathways unfolding during improvisation from one instant to the next.  These micro-decisions are, necessarily, both precipitous and beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.  One key symptom of the emergent nature of this process is the appearance, through fMRI visualization of real-time improvisation, are the appearance of global neuronal ensemble behavior indicating massive synchrony, and unexpected feedback loops between disparate regions of the brain.  Another crucial feature of this moment revolves around the intimate connection between the cochlea and the motor regions that enable responses to the sound contributed by the other musicians which surround the embodied musician, responses that lie beneath conscious awareness.  This complicates our understanding of intentionality in the performance of improvised music.

Details from recent cognitive neuroscience research may help us to understand what the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins means, literally, when he says to aspiring jazz musicians, “Don’t play the music, man, let the music play you.”  The immediacy of performance, involving the intentionality of the performing improviser, involves as well the ears of the performing musician registering and then responding, proprioceptively, to the immediate stimuli of the other contributing musicians’ performance while continuing to play at the same time.  This suggests feedback loops on a larger scale that are suggestive of the neuronal ensemble behavior at the level of the embodied individual, and also require the theorization of a form of distributed cognition that remains embodied: the jazz ensemble takes on a life of its own, yet remains dependent upon the network of embodied individuals.

Donnay GF, Rankin SK, Lopez-Gonzalez M, Jiradejvong P, Limb CJ (2014) Neural       Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88665. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088665

Levitin, Daniel J.  This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.
New York: Plume/Penguin, 2006.

Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance:       An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

Rosenberg. Martin E.  “Jazz and Emergence: Part One.” _Inflexions: A Journal of         Research-Creation_ Vol. 4, pp 183-277. December, 2010,     http://www.senselab.ca/inflexions/volume_4/n4_rosenberghtml.html

Rosenberg. Martin E.  “Neuroscience Research on Top-Down and Bottom-up Styles             of Cognition During Jazz Improvisation in Light of Recent Theoretical           Research on “Cognitive Capitalism.”  Workshop Lecture for The New Centre    For Research and Practice, April 4, 2015.  Two hour You Tube Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNpkojJuabE#t=77

Varela,  Francisco.  “The Specious Present.”  In Naturalizing Phenomenology:  Issues           in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.  Eds.  Petitot, Varela,     et. al.  Palo Alto:  Stanford University Press, 1999, 266-316.

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